On ViewSkarstedt Gallery
Sept 12 – Nov 2, 2019
Albert Oehlen comes out of what might now be considered a tradition of anti-tradition in post war German painting. It was established by Sigmar Polke, one of Oehlen’s mentors at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg, as a bricolage of pop iconography and pattern combined with bravura impasto and dissolute washes. Within this particular tradition, banal advertisements and cartoon characters vie for attention amidst expressionist brushwork and printmaking processes of layered “image plates”, tectonic in their signifying mobility. Each of these layers contain discursive dead ends and tangent incidents of paint/image/materiality that refused classical pictorial cohesion. It was variously termed “Wild”, “Punk” or simply “Bad” painting. Coming out of Germany in the 1970s, this intransigent approach to process and composition is almost invariably seen as an analog to a generational crisis and active resistance against the seamless reconstitution of a national artistic identity post Hitler. Oehlen was born in 1954, almost a full decade after the fall of the Third Reich, yet the influence of Polke, whose early childhood did encompass that dark period of nationalist trauma, is strong in his pupil. History does however become more malleable with time so that the works of Oehlen and his much more tragicomic comrade, Martin Kippenberger, subsume within their canvasses the foundering disillusion of a demolished German Idealism with a lighter touch and heavier hand than their immediate predecessors.
In titling his Fn Painting series (all 1990) the artist makes a witty rhetorical corollary between their historic import and their insignificance as such. The Fn of the title refers to “footnote”, as if the grand ambition of painting has become reduced to a mere footnote or academic citation. This intentional distancing from painting’s possibility and ironic incorporation of that distance, feels like a combination of Mellville’s retiring Bartleby (“I would prefer not to”) and Beckett’s Worstward Ho! (“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”). How to translate such an unstable founding into expressive painting has preoccupied Oehlen’s entire career. He has achieved this via a complicated pictorial interleaving of imagery and brushwork combined with gestures of erasure that seem to be signifiers of painterly frustration. Fn 1 contains the very obvious pictorial device of two hands pointing symmetrically from the bottom of the canvas to its center. One hand is bonily indicative while the other is half blotted out so that its index finger is redacted. The failure of even indexical meaning in a painting appears to be the artist’s point here. The background of the painting is comprised of two toppling ladder-like forms painted awkwardly as if done by a kindergarten Klee. The iconography of the ladders’ inadequacy for vertical progress suggests that the artist’s pictorial goals are unattainable. In Fn 33 a similarly explicit allegory of impossible meaning unfolds with the inclusion of a cartoon-like, disembodied and bloodshot eyeball hovering precariously in the upper right corner of this nine-foot-tall painting. The eyeball (a stand in for the artist) surveys a grand, landslide-like downward movement of bright yellow and dirty white brushwork against a muddy yellow ochre ground. One can see the bright yellow, a dominant hue in many of these works, corresponding to a jaundiced view of painting’s continued good health—as well as the saturated, artificial light of a neon noir. Both associations accrue to a crap crepuscular that robs even the denouement of painting’s twilight of its heroic fall.
Other examples of works from this series are less directly rhetorical and more loosely painted. These include Fn 2, 11, and 26. Oehlen, in the past, has acknowledged his admiration for the expressionist works of Willem de Kooning and this affinity comes through strongly in these particular works. The drawing-into-painting aspect of de Kooning’s Pink Angels (1945) is clearly seen in Fn 11, with its somewhat stilted arabesques. Fn 26, meanwhile, organizes its painterly incidents of erasure with inscriptive, bold brush marks going nowhere fast, similar to de Kooning’s brushy stops, starts, and recursive u-turns. These paintings can be consumed solely with an epicurean’s taste—as one samples the Expressionism of de Kooning or Emil Nolde, for example—and are similarly made more palatable with their own inevitable drift into time’s mediating penumbra. The aura of these formerly brash works has acquired a respectable patina. An unavoidable question arises from these particular works in the context of Oehlen’s entire career, which has subsequently incorporated more appropriated imagery and digital collage: Is there a point where painting’s long-waked death startles its audience with a miraculous Lazarus awakening? And the following question that catches up to this unfolding drama, like a relative late to the party, is: “What did I miss?” The artist exhibits here, and therefore retains for himself, the privilege of witnessing painting’s perpetual demise as something long gone—or just dimly received—on the threshold of its momentous return.